How Virtual Reality Tech Is Revolutionizing Football Practice

JULY 22, 2016 • Blog Post • BY ATLANTIC RE:THINK

IN THIS ARTICLE

  • Virtual reality tech is revolutionizing training camps by keeping injured players training and bringing empathy to the locker room like never before
  • Coaches say virtual reality in training camps will create the next sports revolution on par with game film

VR helps players avoid injury and brings empathy into the locker room, giving everybody the ability to see things from the other guy’s position

As NFL teams gather for training camps this summer, many will find the experience completely transformed. They’ll still have to memorize and understand complicated play books, run through all the plays and hear the roar of the stadium crowd, but they’ll do it all without breaking a sweat, going to practice in air-conditioned, virtual-reality rooms.

Teams across all professional sports are using VR for practice to help their players improve while minimizing exposure to injury. Coaches have predicted that VR will create a sports revolution on par with the emergence of game film.

  • VR will create a sports revolution on par with the emergence of game film.

Researchers recognized the promise of VR decades ago, but the technology took a long time to catch up with the vision. The advent of the Oculus Rift, Sony PlayStation VR and similar devices have brought it to life.

For athletes and coaches, VR’s advantage over game film is that it can show the action from every angle and position on the field. A coach can now step into a player’s shoes, and players can see plays from the perspective of every position on the field.

VR lets players run through drills even while recovering from injuries. It also means fewer chastisements for failed plays. With VR, coaches will be able to see those times when something didn’t work or a player didn’t execute a play because of what the player saw on the field. Players can also see the reasons behind what they thought was a teammate’s mistake. As Beyond Sports’ Robert Overweg told Wired, “It’s a little bit of a trippy experience, but it’s also really interesting that you can become someone else. It really enhances the empathy level of the players.”

Former Stanford University placekicker Derek Belch started considering how VR could improve his sport while taking a class on VR in 2007. After finishing his undergraduate degree, he wrote a master’s thesis on VR’s potential as a training tool, then returned to Stanford as an assistant football coach. He talked the rest of the staff into doing VR practice drills before the final three games of the 2014 season, and the results validated his intuition. With the benefit of VR insights, Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan played the best three games of his college career. Less than two months later, Belch launched a VR startup called STRIVR, and the Cardinal coach was one of his first investors.

As recently as two years ago, the company was capturing footage with a cluster of six GoPro cameras mounted together to form a cube. STRIVR’s Head of Strategy, Danny Belch, says the company now has a more advanced 360-camera rig. During drills on the field, it is mounted on a tripod right next to a player, usually within half an arm’s length of the quarterback. After getting used to it, most players forget the camera is there. To eliminate movement, there is no camera operator, just the tripod and camera. “If you start introducing movement in VR, it can make you sick when you’re watching it,” says Belch. After the practice session, he adds, “we do a lot of technical work on the back end to let you move around throughout the scene.”

Soccer goalies use that ability to learn from every save and every miss. Basketball players find VR especially useful in analyzing their free throws and three pointers.

STRIVR uses live-action video because research conducted at Stanford shows that being able to watch your own and other players’ movements closely in the highly focused environment of VR opens the brain to learning. “We are not trying to just entertain or provide gimmicky stuff,” says Belch. “We are really trying to provide a useful performance-enhancing product.”

Video-graphic simulations, while not as lifelike as video, offer another advantage. Teams that work with EON Sports VR’s Sidekiq, which simulates action in VR with video-game style graphics, are able to manipulate player positioning within the simulation. By slightly moving players around, they can study how every player on the field impacts the outcome of a play, leading to the creation of new plays and the correction of old ones.

EON Sports also offers a baseball package with strike-zone and pitch-tracking training tools, developed with the help of former major leaguer Jason Giambi. On the soccer pitch, the Dutch national team and the top Dutch pro team, the AFC Ajax, work with a similar VR gaming-style program designed by Beyond Sports and Triple IT. The Orange first used VR to get ready for the 2014 World Cup.

From that first contract with the Stanford Cardinal, the list of teams using STRIVR and other VR devices has grown steadily. At least eight NFL teams and many more college football teams used it last season. In Washington, D.C., the NBA’s Wizards, the NHL’s Capitals and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics are using VR too.

“You’re going to see more and more VR in sports,” Arizona Cardinals executive Michael Bidwell said during an NFL Network broadcast. “My philosophy is, if it’s allowed by the rules and it gives us an edge to win games and to get our players prepared to win, that’s what we’re going to be investing in.”

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